BANGKOK — The head of Thailand’s army, one of the most powerful institutions in the country, appeared to distance himself from the goals of anti-government protesters in a nationally televised speech on Monday that analysts said was a signal to the Thai public.
After months of assiduously seeking to remain neutral in Thailand’s three-month power struggle, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, the army chief, repeatedly called for adherence to the Thai Constitution.
He said “many sides” in the crisis would like to see the use of force to settle the stalemate, an apparent reference to the coup d’état advocated by protesters.
“I would like to urge you to reconsider, compose yourselves and ask yourselves whether this would end peacefully,” Prayuth said.
Protesters who control a number of major intersections in Bangkok are seeking to oust the Thai government and are allied with shadowy gunmen who battled the police last week, killing one officer and injuring several dozen. A second police officer died on Monday of injuries suffered during the same fighting.
Violence escalated over the weekend, with attacks on protest sites by unidentified gunmen that left four people dead, including three children.
The country’s political deadlock centers on the concentration of power by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her political movement, which has won every election since 2001. Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, the founder of the movement, was prime minister when he was overthrown by the military in 2006 after being accused of corruption and abuse of power.
In his address on Monday, Prayuth issued a stark warning about the fragility of the nation, saying it would “permanently stop functioning” if the situation were not urgently addressed.
“If there is any further loss of life,” he said, “the country will definitely collapse and there won’t be any winners or losers.”
The general cited military intelligence that there were many armed groups and said that the situation was more complex than a political standoff four years ago.
Although he said the military and the police did “not support either side,” Prayuth used the word “constitution” nine times in his 10-minute speech and underlined that it was “still in force.”
The protesters, who are seeking to banish Yingluck and her family from Thailand, say they want to set up an unelected “people’s council” that would replace Parliament.
Surachart Bamrungsuk, a professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok who is a foremost expert on the Thai military, said Prayuth’s speech was “a signal to the elites who are pushing for a coup.”
The message, Surachart said, was “that the military is not getting involved and that the military is trying to obey the law.”
“It’s also a signal directly to the demonstrators,” he said.
The protesters, led by a former deputy prime minister, Suthep Thaugsuban, appear to have powerful backing and financing and remain defiant despite declining numbers of supporters in the streets.